Letters to the editor
Focus readers, May 2016
The billion-dollar sewage debacle
To date, nobody has died from Victoria’s existing sewage treatment system. It has caused no outbreaks of cholera, no mass extinctions of sea-life, not even a documented case of upset stomach. The good news (as has been frequently reported by a variety of scientists and public health officers) is that powerful offshore ocean currents provide Victoria with an environmentally and economically sustainable form of sewage treatment.
Inexplicably, the federal and provincial governments have decided to ignore this good news and decree a superfluous sewage plant be built. Rather than question the absurdity of this order, Victoria city council quietly complied, eagerly welcoming the chance to flush a billion dollars down the drain.
Yet a real tragedy lurks beneath the surface of this farce. Imagine the potential benefits that could be derived from investing a billion dollars into any number of deserving (and underfunded) social programs. Pick any one—the alleviation of child poverty, for example—and consider the improvements in life quality (and longevity) that would accrue to future British Columbians from such an infusion of cash.
In a world of finite financial resources we owe it to invest in people, not unnecessary, politically-driven mega projects. Victoria’s billion-dollar sewage proposal is a frivolous use of money that will save lives neither today nor in the future.
The sewage debacle, as you wrote, ain’t done yet. What bothered me the most in Leslie Campbell’s piece was the comment by Oak Bay Mayor Jensen when anticipating objections about Esquimalt rejecting McLoughlin. To quote: “What is more important, the process or the taxpayers?” As a taxpayer in Oak Bay I will remember that comment and wonder what the taxpayers of Esquimalt would say if he was their mayor?
I spent many years designing and overseeing building of sewage treatment plants and finished as chief of the Municipal Division of BC’s Pollution Control Branch. It is over 20 years since I wrote Victoria’s Sewage Circus and I am now 90. This issue is critical.
The tides off Victoria’s coast have been rising and falling for millions of years and over that time whales, fish and crustaceans have died, sunk and putrefied, joining a mass of sea vegetation taking their part in nature’s magical reincarnation process. Victoria’s contribution has been negligible and that is obvious. Reducing or modifying Victoria’s liquid waste will have no beneficial effect whatever and nobody with adequate education has ever thought otherwise. It is interesting to compare that condition with the situation in Kelowna where the flow into and out of the lake is so small that it takes over 100 years for the lake’s water to change. Secondary treatment is no good there and they were in need of the world’s most sophisticated tertiary treatment plants.
The most important reason for treating sewage discharged to the sea is to control pathogenic organisms to prevent disease. The present system does that perfectly for there are no pathogens at the shoreline. The control of pathogens from secondary treatment plants is much less satisfactory for it requires staff to follow procedures. Readers will recall what happened at a water plant not many years ago where correct procedures were ignored.
It has been believed in advanced countries that secondary plants do not themselves lead to disease, but that is not obvious because the essence of most secondary plants is the aeration tanks where air is blown through the sewage to purify it, leading to a mass of pathogenic aerosols above them. Lacking evidence that this practice has caused harm, advanced nations have accepted that any risk must be negligible. Until now, that is. In recent years, medical researchers at the University of Pisa (Galileo’s old haunt) and Gothenburg ( a major Swedish city) have deduced that aerosols from secondary plants may damage the health of the elderly. All this can be read on the internet, but has been conveniently ignored in Victoria.
So we can deduce with certainty that whereas providing secondary treatment will do no good, it is equally certain that it will do harm. Taking into account the diversion of funds from other needed enterprises, it would indeed do great harm.
Injury has been ignored but would be substantial and it appalls me that the CRD have not bothered to work out how many people are going to be permanently impaired as a result of this wicked folly.
J.E.(Ted) Dew-Jones, P.Eng
I’ve been wondering why Option 10, as detailed by David Broadland in Focus’ February edition, has not been mentioned or covered in the myriad of articles in the Times-Colonist? The Option 10 plan seems to be a simple, yet elegant, inexpensive, and scientifically sound solution.
Dear Lisa Helps: I call on you to be the leader I voted for and stop this sewage treatment debacle before it’s too late. You’re scrambling around to meet a federal deadline so you can get $83 million in funding for something that may not even be needed for decades.
Just the other day I came upon a piece of information that put this headlong rush to build a treatment facility in perspective. I learned that the federal government’s deadline of 2020 for building a sewage treatment plant doesn’t apply to Victoria. The “high risk” category is for communities that discharge their sewage into fresh water. That’s not the case here.
For years I’ve been reading letters and articles from scientists, engineers, scholars and medical people saying that our current sewage treatment process is sufficient and that there is no need for a secondary treatment plant. Did it ever cross your mind that these experts might be right?
And how would we know if they are right? Surely the best thing to do at this point would be to undertake a complete cost-benefit analysis to determine exactly what is needed for our community. It appears this has not been done. And yet the new federal government is committed to evidence-based decision making. Surely a rigorous assessment is needed before we even get those promised federal funds.
Lisa Helps, I challenge you to have the guts to stop this train and stand up and speak for those on the side of common sense. Ask the feds to review the classification. Let the $83 million go to a community in Canada that really is at high risk for coliform contamination.
And give us a window to get our ducks in a row so that we can have plans in place for a state-of-the-art sewage treatment centre in 2040. The most important thing is not getting it done but getting it right. The citizens of Victoria will thank you for it.
According to articles I have read in Focus, Mayor and council have not made the scientific case to support the need for “secondary or better” treatment given Victoria’s particular situation. That makes it sound like ideology has once again trumped science.
Really, I am quite happy to pay for secondary or even tertiary treatment if I can be shown the advantages and necessity of it. Council should be able to make a public statement to the effect that “we have read all these reports and the reason we have come out for this particular solution is because...”
Helps’ statement that “I am not really interested in the debate about do we need to do it , do we not need to do it” just doesn’t cut it. We are still sorting out the expensive missteps around Mayor Fortin’s bridge replacement. I am hoping that future mayors and councils won’t still be struggling, in years to come, with similar unexamined issues and costs associated with our nascent sewage system. Now is the time to sort it out.
Devil’s Mountain Fault
What a superb edition! And, I might say, a most thoughtful editorial, Leslie, on the homeless community in Victoria. I would also like to express my appreciation to David Broadland for the excellent article, “Devil’s Mountain Fault: the frightening implications for Victoria.”
I think this article should be required reading for all local council members, MLAs and MPs representing the southern part of Vancouver Island. I would also like to suggest that the staff and directors of the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority and Stantec Consulting Ltd (who are preparing the Ogden Point Master Plan) take time to read this important document.
I feel that David’s timely revelation of this new geotechnical information is vitally important to emergency planning in the CRD. It is even more imperative to consider given the GVHA’s proposed major infrastructure development plans for this property at the entrance to Victoria’s Outer Harbour (search “ogden point master plan” at www.gvha.ca).
Great March/April issue! Scary too. The emperor has no clothes—what we need is a capital infrastructure review/SWAT team to launch bridges, sewage treatment plants, et cetera, and negotiate contracts for any municipality with a project likely to exceed x million dollars.
Thanks for the great writing and insightful analysis. Keep it up.
Joan MacLeod’s The Valley
I confess I’m disappointed not to receive Focus in my mailbox every month, mainly because I peruse it for events in Victoria. However, the new format and length is most welcome, and I’m impressed with the timely, relevant, excellent journalism in Focus.
I also want to thank you for being the media sponsor for Joan MacLeod’s play The Valley, at the Belfry in February. I saw the show with my two daughters and we were grateful to have seen such a stunning performance. One of my daughters remarked that if people saw the play, they would never question why or how our system of civil society breaks down. I thought to myself that any one of Joan MacLeod’s plays constitutes a course in modern sociology. Thank you again for sponsoring such a worthwhile and moving play.
Practicing hope and buying time
I want to add my praise to the accolades that Gene Miller receives and deserves for his Focus articles. His latest, “Practicing hope and buying time,” is an excellent example of his digging into a concrete (or in this case woody) issue to find the nectar of deeper insights and life-meanings.
I liked his David Storey quote about “humanity’s relation to nature” and the “collapse of an ordered nature [a religious cosmology and hierarchy] in which human beings have a proper place.” Some people’s careless ruination of the beautiful world God created, and other people’s attempts to restore and respect it, exemplify the classic theological archetype of creation, fall and redemption. No wonder Elizabeth May likes to read theology.
My religion, that is my belief about how the world works and what it all means, involves three main things.
First of all, hope, which Gene urges in his last sentence. Second, faith that God loves the world, is constantly intervening to rescue it (through the work of environmentalists, for instance), and will ultimately succeed even if we destroy ourselves. Third, gratitude. To me, gratitude is the great motivator. I pick up litter, recycle, re-use, reduce, read, recreate, revere nature, respect all people, and generally try my best to live my life out of gratitude and thanksgiving for all God’s gifts, not the least of which is Gene Miller (even with his “Shit Sandwiches”).
Gene Miller notes “acting in the name of a collective social will” is a challenge, and I would agree it proves a little alarming to certain members of society. I would contend my perceived “problem” with having homeless present in our city parks and otherwise, is a testament to our collective tolerance, values and to a large degree, our climatic zone.
The cultural “noosphere” (Vladimir Vernadsky) that we inhabit on this thin wedge of rock is unique and under constant threat, as you so often point out. This is a good thing! It’s the only thing that we can communally create and it requires ceaseless thought, engagement and action. Please continue asking these questions, talk to our toothless dissidents and pick that trash. Let’s push our design space to permit more than just “feel good heroism” values on every kilogram collected.
Great Bear Rainforest Agreement
I understand Briony Penn’s inability to grasp the meaning of the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement (GBRA) in her March/April, 2016 Focus report.
Especially in a time of climate change, and the atmospheric instability it is bringing, how can anyone claim “certainty”?
To help make sense of what was changed by the GBRA (announced February 1, 2016), I assembled data for the area and the approved Allowable Annual Cut for the three Timber Supply Areas, three Tree Farm Licences and one Community Forest that are affected.
In the GBRA area (north end of Vancouver Island to Alaska), I could detect no real change in the areas affected or in the approved rate of logging (AAC).
Before and after January 2016 there are 6.4 million hectares in the total GBRA area, there are 555,000 hectares of managed forest (future Timber Harvesting Land Base), and the 2.5 million cubic metres AAC allocated to timber licensees for logging remained the same. If there were gains and losses to the players as a result of this agreement, this difference is not discernible.
My question is: Did the GBRA affect the area of managed forest (area available to log), and the approved rate of logging? Will someone explain?
Ray Travers R.P.F. (Ret.)
Briony Penn responds: Thanks Ray for the timely questions. There are indeed many unanswered questions on the GBRA. This is a big topic for a Focus sequel. We would welcome an interview with anyone with knowledge of the inner workings of what is left of the Ministry of Forests. Since the responsibility for inventorying the forest was dropped from the Chief Forester’s legislated mandate, I don’t really know where to look or whom to ask to get that information. If you go to the provincial ministry website and look up the Annual Report of the ministry there isn’t anything available after 2011/12. Since the BC Liberals got into power, those documents from 2011 have no information in them. We have gone from big documents that one would expect with such a vast area of public forest to manage for future generations, to 40 pages of business goals that might be more appropriate for a brewing business than a public forest of 52 million hectares. One might expect something like a map, for instance. And you certainly won’t find any descriptions of the state of British Columbia’s forests. You certainly won’t find any mention of the GBRA back in 2011 when it was very much a work in progress and the public was interested in finding out what the companies at that stage were cutting on a voluntary basis while the final agreement was being coaxed along. No, I’m afraid there is a black hole when it comes to government records on what precisely they are supposed to be stewarding for future generations.
Get to the point on Ship Point
The problem won’t be solved by pop-up art or fire-eating buskers. This shoreline needs a showcase building (or two). How about a new art gallery? A new concert hall? A replica of Fort Victoria very near its original site? How about a new building to house the Maritime Museum? Maybe it could be a showcase to house all three.
The city should hold an architectural competition. See if someone can come up with a striking design that takes its inspiration from Northwest Native art, for example—a modern interpretation of a longhouse perhaps.
This area is, I think, an integral part of one of the gems of North American land-and-seascapes. Unfortunately, this part of it has looked like a paved-over open-pit minescape for years. It needs a showcase building to greet visitors as ships round the bend and enter the Inner Harbour. It needs a public building that could help celebrate our cultural heritage. It could have a city-side entrance at the foot of Fort Street and it could have a water-facing entrance below. One floor could be used to celebrate our First People’s culture and art. Another floor could tell the story of European explorers’ arrival and our subsequent maritime history. Another floor could tell the story of Fort Victoria and our gold rush beginnings. Another floor could display the works of Emily Carr, E.J. Hughes and some of our other influential artists. The building could feature a courtyard for public gatherings and an amphitheatre for musical events.
Such a building project would, I think, help lift the civic imagination out of the mire of the endless sewage debate. It would help revitalize a part of Downtown that is starting to look a little seedy. And it would be a boon to the local economy and a much-needed added attraction for tourists.
Yes, you say, “But who would pay for this grandiose plan?” And “Do we need a Royal BC Museum 2?” Well, apparently our senior governments have many millions available for lesser projects. The Royal BC Museum has been a great success but is straining at its seams. And this project would keep paying benefits for generations of Victorians to come.
Climate, trade agreements, rationing
The federal government must renegotiate or withdraw from international agreements that restrict Canada from from having domain over its carbon emissions. If that is not done all the talk in the world means nothing.
An overall carbon cap must be calculated and implemented. Taxes and other forms of compensation do not address the problem. These are seen as just the cost of doing business as usual.
According to Mark Carney, we need to leave over 66 percent of current fossil fuel reserves in the ground.
If we are serious, then caps at the source are the only practical solution. Yes, there are other places the calculation can be applied but it requires the least number of control points to effect the change when it is done near or at the source of extraction. For example, regulations on fuel emissions become unnecessary when there is a ration on the amount of fossil fuel that can be used. “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
I understand that rationing is a hard pill to swallow but it will become easier as more clean wind, solar, geothermal, and hydro power come online. I am not suggesting reducing fossil fuel use by 60-80 percent instantly, but at a gradual rate per year that will see us leaving the correct amount in the ground within 10 years. The practice of promising to reduce emissions to a specific amount by some distant date is not acceptable. A time line of how we get there each year is necessary.
Other government levels need to have their regulations—for example, around zoning and building codes—expanded and altered to encourage clean and efficient energy use.
The world, due to economic downturn, may have resolved much of the first year’s reduction. Economic crisis is not the way to solve this. Governments need to bring in the experts on alternative energy and come up with economic solutions that will fill in the gaps that are necessary to create in the fossil fuel supplies.
Responsible, rational sewage treatment
I appreciate Brian Burchill’s explanation of how the Strait of Juan de Fuca has the proven capability of “auto purification” which could effectively deal with sewage effluent, but I wonder about his idea that the chemicals that make their way into that effluent are best dealt with by “source control.” In a perfect world this makes total sense, but in our world we have seen little evidence that source control is an achievable option. Indeed, as Burchill notes in his article, governments did actually ban a few of the more notorious chemicals such as freon, teflon, DDT, and dioxins. But the controls are weak, sometimes allowing years or even decades for the dangerous substance to be “phased out” and then, often with myriad caveats about “special circumstances” when it can still be used. As well, companies that stood to (gasp!) lose money from those bans, came up with replacement chemicals for the banned ones (such as hydrofluorocarbons for freon and GenX for teflon) that have been shown to be equally damaging, although not always by the same mechanisms as the original chemical.
If we are looking for any precedent to encourage us that “source control” is even on the radar, bear in mind that most of the estimated 30,000-80,000 laboratory-created chemicals that have entered our lives since WWII have not been tested for potential adverse effects on humans, wildlife, insects, sea creatures and/or the rest of nature. Whenever new chemicals hit the market, and there are thousands of them every year, we rely on industry to tell us if they are safe and in what quantities or forms or combinations. Somehow this seems a tad devious, in a fox and henhouse sort of way.
On top of that, no one appears to be seriously monitoring whether those few toxins that actually have been banned, such as dioxins, are truly not exceeding allowable levels, as an Australian investigative news program demonstrated several years ago when they tested and found higher than permitted levels of dioxins in a generic glyphosate herbicide produced in China. We have many examples here in BC of governmental regulating and inspection bodies turning the other way and/or outright denying the possibility when faced with a potential chemical hazard. We only find out about it when things go haywire such as the Mount Polley tailings “pond” breach. Sadly, whether forced or voluntary, “source control” does not seem a reliable option in our current world.